Two years ago, I registered for a Community Service Learning (CSL) 101 course at the last possible minute, looking for an easy course while I served as the University of Alberta Students’ Union VP Academic. The CSL 101 course focused on the theory of community engagement, citizenship and learning – exactly the sorts of things I enjoy. What I was unaware of, however, was that the course involved an internship experience. Selecting from a wide variety of options, I chose the SKILLS Society as my volunteer placement. The SKILLS Society sounded interesting, and as a late registrant in the course, it was one of the handful of organizations still available to students.
Two years later, volunteering with the SKILLS Society is among the most meaningful and life-altering experiences of my university career. As a competitive athlete growing up, I never developed compassion for those with disabilities. My worldview saw only able-bodiedness, a narrow point of view indeed. However, SKILLS changed all of this. During my two months in SKILLS, I worked with Chris, a young man with a mental disability, and his support ally. The relationship between Chris and his support ally was incredible, and each day with them left a smile on my face that carried through the rest of the week. At one point, near the end of the semester, Chris and his mother welcomed me into their home, and we chatted over pastries and coffee for hours. It is a moment of my University of Alberta experience that will forever remain in my mind. It is also a testament to love: an unwavering bond between family and friends that I rarely see in the world. I am truly grateful to SKILLS for this.
Over the last several weeks, the Government of Alberta has announced unprecedented cuts to its Persons with Disabilities program. In a recent Edmonton Journal entitled “Disability minister faces angry crowd; man arrested at meeting,” Karen Kleiss notes that the Disability department overspent on its budget by approximately 15% in the first three months of the fiscal year. This contributes to what Ben Weinlick views as historic cuts, ones that Alberta has never seen. The cuts may amount to $60 million in total, when one considers funding guarantees made by the province over the last year. Despite the drastic changes to disability funding in Alberta, Disability Minister Frank Oberle tells the Edmonton Journal that the province is moving forward with “transformational change.”
As a concerned Alberta, we need to look past this empty rhetoric. In this same Edmonton Journal piece, Oberle remarks “I have some very big structural problems in this system that I need to address. … The services we provide are not based on need.” What he misses, however, is that one cannot deliver transformational change when funds are reduced with little notice provided to those directly affected. On May 23, Don Braid of the Calgary Herald provided one of the most vehement critiques of the Government of Alberta that I have seen thus far. He remarks, for instance, that “Cutting in almost any other area is surely more sensible, socially and politically, than radically reorganizing and cutting service to people who cannot fend for themselves.” He then writes that in 2010, the accounting firm KPMG ” found a high level of waste and inefficiency in the PDD system, largely because of six regional bureaucracies, called community boards, that rule the local service providers.” Braid concludes by writing that Oberle’s current budgetary problems could (and should) have been fixed three years ago.
As a SKILLS Society volunteer, I was fortunate to work in a tight-knit environment with several outstanding people. The one-on-one relationships form the backbone of SKILLS’ vision to foster a “community where all Individuals are valued citizens deserving respect, dignity and rights.” As part of this vision, SKILLS developed “Project Citizenship,” where hundreds of volunteers work with disabled people and share their stories. These stories are then shared with other Edmonton communities, which builds a city that cares about inclusiveness and empathy.
I am fond of my experiences with SKILLS, but I am fearful that Oberle’s budget clawbacks will force the society to close its doors. If this happens, then Project Citizenship goes to waste, the University of Alberta loses a key community partnership and the keen Edmontonians volunteering each week must turn their attention elsewhere. But these budget cuts mean much more than the loss of projects and partnerships. They mean the disintegration of relationships, and the undoing of decades of progress in Alberta that we have worked to hard to achieve.
On Friday May 31 at noon, a protest is taking place at the Alberta Legislature Building. Please attend and share this news with your friends.
CC photograph courtesy of “victor_nuno” on Flickr.